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Breaking down Josh Tomlin: How the Little Cowboy is overcoming velocity

  AP Photo--Craig Lassig  
When Jim Pete, the fearless leader of Everybody Hates Cleveland, passed along an email chain asking for writers to profile the starting rotation, I knew exactly which one I wanted to write about. No, it wasn’t the former Cy Young Award winner. No, it wasn’t one of the current Cy Young Award favorites. No, it wasn’t the one that might win a Cy Young one day. No, it wasn’t the one that put it all together to be a major factor in 2016.

It was Joshua Aubry Tomlin.

I’ve always had a soft spot for the kid from Tyler, TX, who is one of eight players to make it to the Major Leagues as a product of Angelina College in Lufkin, TX. It’s entirely possible that Tomlin isn’t even the best of the seven pitchers to make the big leagues after being Roadrunners in college. The school’s MLB alumni list includes Dennis Cook, Clay Buchholz, and Andrew Cashner. Also, for those interested in random trivia facts, Mark Calaway, better known as The Undertaker, was a student at Angelina.

The idea that Jim presented was to make a case for the pitcher you selected as the best one of the rotation. There’s no reason to insult anybody’s intelligence. I can’t make that case for Josh Tomlin. He wasn’t blessed with a lightning bolt for an arm. He’s probably never overpowered anybody or anything with his nondescript 6-foot-1, 190-pound frame.

Actually, that’s not true. Tomlin has overpowered a lot in his quest to become a fixture in the Indians starting rotation. He missed well over a year with Tommy John surgery and the subsequent recovery. He got back just in time for his shoulder to act up prior to the 2015 season. Through all of it, he persevered. We take Tommy John and the rehab process for granted nowadays because of medical advances and the frequency with which the procedure is done. It is a serious injury, a serious procedure, and a hard thing to return from.

There’s always been something about Josh Tomlin, ever since his Major League debut when he threw seven innings of one-run ball against the New York Yankees on July 27, 2010. That lineup featured Derek Jeter, still-productive Nick Swisher, Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson, and Brett Gardner. He went up against former Indians CC Sabathia and beat him.

I instantly respected his fortitude. Both testicular and intestinal. This was a guy who knew exactly what he was. He didn’t care who you were. He was throwing what he wanted. He was throwing it in the strike zone. He was making you hit it. There was something really admirable about that. In the seven years Tomlin has been in the league, we’ve seen the game become very specialized, with extreme emphasis put on velocity. We’ve also seen the Moneyball craze overtake the game, placing more importance than ever on drawing walks. We’ve seen major statistical advances, ranging from the increasing popularity of sabermetrics to Statcast and everything in between.

Josh Tomlin is still standing.

There was a moment that I remember very well that made me realize how much admiration I have for Josh Tomlin. The Indians were in the midst of their magical resurgence under first-year skipper Terry Francona. I wasn’t there, but I was watching, as I almost always am. A number 43 jersey came jogging out of the bullpen and I had tears in my eyes. I don’t know Josh Tomlin. I’ve never met him. But, I remember that game on September 12, 2013.

Over the last two seasons, Tomlin has made 27 starts and owns a 17-4 record with a 3.22 ERA. He’s not loved by the advanced metrics because strikeouts and home runs are factored so heavily into the calculations. It’s those home runs that stand out to many fans. Tomlin has given up 35 dingers in his last 173.1 innings and 105 in his 621 career innings. Sixty of those have been solo home runs and another 32 have been two-run homers. Twenty of those have been on the first pitch. Thirteen of those have been in full counts.

It’s easy for me to shrug those off because context matters. Like everything else, not all home runs are created equal. The three-run shots and the grand slams are particularly back-breaking. Tomlin has allowed only 13 of those. First-pitch home runs happen. Full-count home runs happen. Home runs happen. Minimizing the damage that home runs cause is Tomlin’s greatest skill.

Among the 182 pitchers with at least 600 innings pitched from 2007-present, one of them has allowed more home runs than walks. You guessed it, Josh Tomlin. Say what you will about the propensity for allowing home runs, we’re talking about a very special level of control. Of that same group of 182 pitchers, the only pitcher than matches Josh Tomlin in BB% (walks divided by plate appearances) is Kevin Slowey. Cliff Lee is third. If you go back to 1960 (an arbitrary selection), with the same 600-inning qualifier, the only pitchers with a lower BB% than Josh Tomlin are Lew Burdette, Dan Quisenberry, and Bob Tewksbury.

The landscape of baseball has changed. Walks aren’t as frowned upon for pitchers as they used to be because strikeouts have increased so much. Strikeouts aren’t as frowned upon for hitters as they used to be because they draw walks and have returned to hitting home runs after some Deadball-y years during the steroid witch hunt.

In some ways, Josh Tomlin is a throwback. I’m a progressive person when it comes to baseball. I like the advanced stats. I like the evolution of the game. And, yet, I’m captivated by a pitcher like Tomlin. It doesn’t hurt that the Indians’ improved defense allows a contact-based pitcher to not only survive, but to thrive, though I was a fan long before that.

Truthfully, there’s no way of knowing what the future holds for Tomlin. He’s not in the class of his rotation mates, but that’s okay. Not many pitchers are. For now, he holds a place in this rotation and, quite frankly, a place in this history of this franchise because of an elite level of control. You have to go back to Addie Joss and Red Donahue to find walk rates this good. You could throw Cliff Lee in that discussion, but his best control years came after he left the Indians.

Maybe Tomlin doesn’t possess the same eye-popping, elite-level stuff and skills of the four guys that work in between his starts, but for a guy that has been a battler throughout his career with an elite, yet underappreciated, skill, he’s a perfect complement and a great change of pace for the best rotation in baseball.
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